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Couch Surfing and Me

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Surf (v): to ride on the crest of a wave, typically toward the shore, while riding on a surfboard.

I cannot surf. Something about that spring up from the belly onto the board eludes me and I always end up losing my balance, crashing into the wave instead of riding it, and often also knocking myself in the head with the board.

Couch surfing, however, is another matter completely. At that, turns out, I am a natural.

Couch surf (v): to travel from place to place in this world, typically towards nowhere in particular, while sleeping overnight, for free, on the couches of strangers you meet on the internet.

It starts, as many things do, with Google. There, I discover a web based community founded in 2004 by a young Alaskan named Casey Fenton who thought of the idea when, as a student, he went on a trip to Iceland and needed a place to crash for the night. Unlike many other on line social networking communities -- this one is all about getting away from your computer, and traveling to get to know new people face to face.

It works sort of like the old home-swapping idea, except there is no requirement to reciprocate. You register (for free), set up a profile, and can then chose to either host other members on your couch, or make requests to stay on the couches of others -- or both.

Hosts are under no obligation to invite someone over if they feel uncomfortable and can set ground rules for the visit -- bring your own sheets, for example, or don't stay more than three nights. The network is based on a trust, and you are encouraged to write reviews of the people you get to know, so as to build up a verification and vouching system, which serves as something of a safety net.

A trickle of interest, and a few thousands users soon turned into a torrent -- and today there are over 2 million members, who hail from 238 countries -- which makes couch surfing the largest hospitality exchange network in the world.

I start my week-long couch surfing adventure scrolling through the hundreds of hosts listed on the Rome page and randomly pick one. "Hi there, could I stay on your couch Sunday night?" I write, cheerfully, to a handsome looking guy named Biagio, who has glowing references and states he likes to cook pasta for his guests. His couch- also pictured -looks rather plush. A few hours later I check my couch surfing message box. No answer. I'm a little worried. The next day, Biagio writes back to say he is renovating his flat and cant help me out. Is that true? I wonder, insecure. Would it be better if were 22? From Holland? Was there something wrong with my request?

I spend the afternoon filling in and re-writing my profile, trying to be both impressive and modest - and a little funny- all at once. So difficult. I write a few words about my life philosophy, list my hobbies and search for the right photo to upload. I settle on one of me posing with my friend Amber's husband Tal. He is muscular and fiercely good looking. That will put off any potential rapists, I think. I look at various people's profiles and references and try to gauge who would make good hosts and who is uptight or weird and with whom I have interests in common. I send out a whole new batch of couch requests.

I soon decide to skip Rome altogether - they get too many requests, I figure, and I cant deal with the competition -- and soon am corresponding with a Stefano in Lucca, a Sergio in Milan, and am putting out feelers in half a dozen other towns and villages across Italy and into France. I peruse the online Paris group, join the Milan group and, well, there you go, I am doing it.

Surfing, Surfing...and I am off.

I arrive in Lucca by bus in the early evening and sit to wait for Stefano, my first couch surf host, on the bench outside the closed visitors office. It distinctly feels like I am about to go on a blind date and I don't like it. I feel a little glum. And my bag is too heavy. How will I know what Stefano looks like? Wait, is his name even Stefano? or is this Sergio? What normal person would be here waiting on a bench to go over to sleep at a stranger's house? I wonder, getting increasingly bleak. It starts to drizzle. A car drives up.

Turns out he is lovely. Rolly poly and friendly, we walk along the cobbled streets of town to get a drink. We chat about how the Italians always dub their movies and how the guy who did the voice for Woody Allen just died. Stefano argues the guy who does Al Pachino has a voice more suited to Al Pachino than Al himself. I cant really disagree. He is 35 and a fellow journalist who works at the regional TV station in Pisa, we move on to discuss the demise of the typewriter and then his recent trip to South America. Forty-six percent of Argentines are actually Italians, he tells me. That cannot be true, I think, but don't want to contradict my host lest he write me a bad couch surfing review.

We head over to a pizzeria and eat Cecina, which is basically a chick pea patty with more in common with hummus than a slice, and drink a cheap sparkling concoction called Spuma Biondi made, Stefano tell me, out of sugar. We talk about couch surfing. He joined, he explains, because he likes to travel alone -- but not after 8pm. Then it gets lonely and you find yourself wishing for some company.

He has couch surfed in Turkey, Portugal, and across South America, and, back home in Lucca, has hosted 60 people so far. He likes to receive one guest at a time and not couples or groups, he specifies on his profile, so he can really talk and get to know them -- and he also tries to host older surfers, because he has more in common with them. The average age of couch surfers is, according to the web site, 28 -- although there are families that surf together, and elderly who join in too.

The bill comes and I hedge. What is the etiquette here? Is the surfer supposed to pay? Did those etiquette rules take into account my lowly Haaretz budget? We split it. Is that OK? Is he a little disappointed? We drive some six kilometers out of town into the countryside and down a gravel lane to his house in relative silence. It's late and I am looking forward to the couch.

My first couch is actually more of a narrow bed, set in Stefano's study, next to an old computer and a bookshelf filled with dictionaries. There are sheets on the bed already. Wonderful. I need to check into the couch surfing site to see what is happening with my other couch requests for later in the week, but he does not have internet at home. Good night, he says. A girl walks out of another room -- his sister, it turns out, who he lives with. She nods, I nod, the whole thing is a little strange I guess, but, whatever.

The next day, Stefano and I part with a stilted hug and wish one another good luck. I tell him I will give him a call if I am ever writing stories about Tuscany, he says he will be in touch too. He drives off, and I wander off to try to find a wireless spot and get a cappuccino. How painless was that? I think. Couch surfing is so easy! What is not easy, however, is getting on line to check my couch surfing account. Have they not heard of wireless in Italy?

I get a local train to the coastal town of Viareggio, where, schlepping my bags down to the boardwalk, I continue on my search for the elusive Italian wifi café. Finally, together with my third cappuccino of the day, I pick up a signal. First order of business, I write a glowing review of my stay with Stefano. Firstly because he is nice, and second because I am hoping he will now write something nice about me, which in turn will get more people to want to host me. I am so keen, I end up pressing the wrong tab and posting my review twice. I add him as a friend. My first Couch Surfing friend. Its so exciting. Ah, no. I see he has to confirm me. Is it strange he has not written a review of me? What else could he be doing with his time?

I then reconfigure my settings so I can get messages sent directly to my blackberry, and I correspond a little with Mickael from Grenoble, who has agreed to host me later in the week. He is new to the site and has no references, and is also a member of the "Grenoble SOS group" which means he is willing to put up travelers who get stuck and need a last minute bed. Is that suspicious? He has no friends, I note. But then again, neither do I. Why has Stefano not confirmed me as a friend? It's all so stressful this, in its own, laid back surfing way.

On my blackberry, meanwhile, I have begun to get about a message a minute from the Milan group I have signed up for. "We are meeting for an a drink Tuesday," reads one. "I will be there," replies someone called Patrizia. "Me too," chimes in a guy called Popey. And so it goes.

I head back to the station and stand on line to ask if there is internet on the train. They have no idea what I am even asking. The journey is stunning. The train whizzes between the green mountains and bright blue sea and deposits me in Milan, where I set off to find Maurizio, Italy's couch surfing "ambassador," at the drinks gathering.

A 51 year old computer expert with salt and pepper hair, Maurizio is originally from Sicily, but has been living in Milan for 28 years. He discovered couch surfing three years ago when he went to Bremen, Germany for a quick cheap weekend, and used the site to find somewhere to stay. Since then he has come to live and breath the community. He moderates groups, organizes and participates in local couch surfing activities, and, as ambassador, helps negotiate problems and promote the spirit of the enterprise. There are city and country ambassadors, all volunteers, all over the world.

Maurizio arrives at the interview with three girls, a 22 year old Latvian and two 20 year olds from St Petersburg, one of whom, it later transpires, has family in Haifa. "Shalom," we say. Ok. All three girls, along with another young Canadian woman who will show up later, are couch surfing with Maurizio that night. Since he joined, boasts the ambassador, he has hosted 500 people, making him the top host in the country.

But, he adds, if he accepted all the requests received he could have easily hosted double that number. Maurizio has certain rules he goes by when selecting his guests -- those who "copy and paste" requests will be refused; He prefers women, he admits, "because they are much neater," and he rarely replies to those with empty profiles. "I do not want to host a ghost," he explains. He keeps in touch, he says, with about 75 percent of those who he has met through the site.

The two main misconceptions about couch surfing, he says, are that it is a free bed and that it is a dating site. Ok. You do get a free bed, and sometimes, you might find a date - in fact, he admits, he met his girlfriend -- a violinist from Latvia -- when she came to surf his couch two years ago. But couch surfing, he stresses, is much more than that - it is a way of life.
"This is a community of like minded people," he says. "...open minded and young at heart, who love to travel and meet travelers and share experiences."

Milan, he continues proudly, has one of the most active couch surfing communities in the world, with some 3000 members in total and social frequent gatherings to which 250 people easily show up. Don't I know it. I am drowning in news bulletins from the Milan group.

And what is his motivation to host so many people, I ask, seeing him try to make conversation with the St Petersburg girls, who speak minimal English. Years ago, he was about to get married and had bought a big apartment in central Milan, he tells me. Then, things fell apart: he got cancer, his fiancé left him and while he survived the disease, he was left unable to have children. He did, however, still have the big apartment.

"I feel this project helps me fill the hole of not having children in my life," he says. "Its not like everyone who comes to stay for a night or two is like my child, but I do imagine that if I had kids, I would want them to be looked after the way I try to look after these visitors to my home."

Soon, my host for the night, Sergio, a 37 year old lawyer, shows up on a massive motorbike, gives me a spare helmet and whisks me away, bags and all, for a tour of the city.

Yelling to be heard above the wind, he points out a hospital for elderly musicians, a pizzeria whose owner once shot some sobers and became a popular vigilante, the Brazilian restaurant where Ronaldino and all the other AC Milan footballers hang out, and a prison where the top floor prisoners can peer out the windows into the roundabout below.

This is not the stuff of tour guides, that's for sure. We pass by the monastery where De Vinci's Last Supper resides, zoom by the Duomo, under repair as always, head over to the main synagogue, dally at the Piazza, and make our way down the narrowest street in town. Do you want to see Berlusconi's home? he asks me. I'm so tired, its possible I will fall asleep and off the back of the bike. A couch. I need a couch.

The one he offers, back at his apartment, is a pull out in his office and comes complete with clean sheets, a light summer blanket and a bottle of mosquito repellent on the side table. On the wall is a map of Guinea, and we get chatting about West Africa where he has, of course, also couch surfed.

In the kitchen, meanwhile, Sergio shows me a collection of gifts from his other surfer guests - alcohol from all over the world, boxes of chocolate and a sole package of instant noodles from China. I bring out my own chocolate box offering and present it to him. He smiles kindly.

I wake Wednesday practically in panic about Dijon. Dijon, the weak link in the operation. I plan to be there Saturday night but have not yet secured a host and need to send out a fresh slew of requests. I scroll down through my approximately 450 emails from the couch surfing Milan group I received overnight. How much is it costing me to get all these emails on roaming? I say thank you to Sergio, hit the road and un-join the Milan group.

Next up is my host Ilaria, a 26 year old part time student, part time nutritionist from Bergamo, just north of Milan, who welcomes me into her messy ground floor apartment with a box of Mazas in her hand. Maza? Indeed. She does not like salt or wheat, so she is a big fan. How random.

Random, in fact, is a good description of my evening with her. It is shared with Helen, a saxophonist from Estonia who speaks half a dozen languages and is en route to visit her Argentinean boyfriend, and Pauli, a Finnish mathematician, both of whom are also surfing with Ilaria. We go folk dancing - but of course.

When I first heard of the plan I had visions of an old fashion dance in a village in the hills -- but instead we take the highway and get incredibly lost in the suburbs, going through one desolate round about to the next and down dead ends that end at mega supermarkets. Finally, we reach a suburban sports center, where a celebration of Scottish jigs and Polish polkas is taking place on the basket ball court. Helen pulls me in, and, her arms around my waist, we twirl around and around.

"I love these dances because they are so inclusive," says Ilaria. "They have music from all over the world and immigrants come, with their children, to show them the different cultures." Its such a lovely comment. "Inclusive" -- it's a good way to describe this whole couch surfing experience so far. I like it.

Soon--Oh dear, I knew it was coming -- the bands strikes up a lively Debka. I stumble with the steps. Are you not Israeli? my new friends ask me, unimpressed. "It's Syrian!" I protest. They are not buying it. Next up comes up Zadik Hatamar - Whew, the one Israeli folk dance I know. "Zadik Hatamar Yifrach Yifrach," I sing along loudly, as we, the couch surfers, together with the Italian suburbanites and the immigrants all hold hands and sway this way and that.

When I wake early the next morning, on my couch in the dining room, Ilaria is shuffling out of her room to drive me to the station. I am touched. What a genuinely kind, generous person. "I like helping others," she says. "I know what its like to be a stranger in a town." Ilaria hosts anywhere between one and eight people a week, she says, often leaving spare keys for guests to come in and out. 'Its good karma," she says. I give her my Fodor's Italy, kiss her goodbye, get on the train and head across the mountains to France.

Nine hours, several trains and a little hitch hiking later I descend in the studenty town of Grenoble to wait for Mickael, the 24 year old interior designer with no references I am a little worried about. We walk back to his cramped apartment, which he shares with three others: Thomas, Camilla and Mathilde. They wander in and out. Other friends wander in and out. They play music and smoke cigarettes and drink beer and make jokes about kaka. They are, after all, in their 20s. Strangely, Mickael does not speak English. But wait, we have been corresponding in English for days! He uses Google translate, his roommates explain.

They put out an extra mattress for me in the space between the TV set and the coffee table and the bicycles. Do I need sheets? Nah! Mickael gives me his pillow. We all make dinner: hot dogs and cabbage salad. I cut up some carrots. Other friends wander in. Others wander out.

I get on line to find that Sergio in Milan has written me a review. My first review. I'm so excited. "Don't miss the opportunity to know her," he says. Oh, how wonderful. But why hasn't Stefano written anything? I wonder. I check to see when he was last on line. 10 hours ago. Did he not like me? Was it because I didn't pay for dinner? I write a glowing review for Sergio and another even more glowing one for Ilaria. Speaking of Ilaria, is she not on line? Does she not want to write something for me?

I read some of Sergio's other reviews of guests and note he has written "not to be missed" for some guests from Mexico too. I feel a little let down. Less special. I email back and forth with a potential host from Dijon who has informed me I am welcome to stay, but just so I know in advance, he is renovating the bathroom and it has no door this week. Is that weird? All along, I keep looking at my blackberry and feel something is missing. I cant put my finger on it. And then it hits me. The Milano couch surfing group messages. I miss them. I am becoming addicted to this couch surfing.

The next night, in elegant Lyon, I go out with my host Guillaume, a 28 year old air traffic controller for a small private airline, and another woman who is couch surfing at his place that night - Sumeyra, a 23 year old glamorous math teacher from Istanbul. We talk about the flotilla, as one does, and then start talking about some of the downsides of couch surfing.

In Nice, the night before, Sumeyra confines, her host came onto her. It was late and she had nowhere to go, and he was drunk and insisted she sleep in his bed instead of on the couch. She asked for our advice: Should she write a negative review? If she did, no doubt, he would write something bad about her in reply, and then it might be hard for her to find hosts.

Once, Guillaume tells us, an American girl wrote a bad review for him complaining that he did not have an elevator in his building, but had failed to mention that in his profile. He retaliated by writing that she was a "fat bitch." I am taken aback. "You did?" I ask. He did. She took down her negative review. He took down hers.

Although the system has both the public peer review section, and also another section, seen only by administrators, where you rate the trustworthiness of hosts and guests, it is clearly not full proof. Maurizio in Milan once had 30,000 dollars worth of electrical equipment stolen. And infamously, in Leeds last year, a young woman from Hong Kong was raped by her host. "Sometimes there are cultural misunderstanding," Maurizio says. "And sometimes there are real problems. Of course you have to always take care."

Its the last day of my trip, and my train rolls into Dijon. There, on the platform are my long searched for hosts for the night, a 27 year old couple of musicians, Pauline and Romain who have come to pick me up. He, an acoustic bass player; She, a viola player wearing a summer dress and holding a fresh baguette. Why, I ask, would anyone ever want to arrive in Dijon any other way?

Soon, we will return to their cozy house, which is choc a bloc filled with posters of old movies, music books and knickknacks, and sit down to dinner: Fresh fish from the market where Romain has a day job, potatoes gratin, cheeses with 70 percent fat and a good bottle of chambolle-musigny. My bed will be a rickety couch in the music room with a sleeping bag thrown on top. I will need to go through both the kitchen and their bedroom in order to reach the bathroom, where, when I go to shower later, the entire shower head will explode -- but I don't mind any of it a bit. In fact I sort of want to move in.

But for now, they just kiss me warmly on both cheeks hello, take my bags and lead the way.

Surfing, Surfing, and off we go.